Last week, many American Jews, myself included, breathed a sigh of relief — for the moment, at least — when the Israeli Knesset declined to vote on a bill that could give Israel’s Orthodox Rabbinate the authority to validate or invalidate conversions performed in the country. As the Knesset breaks for its summer recess, the bill will thankfully remain tabled for at least three months (or four to six depending on who you ask).
Since I’m a fairly secular Jew, it might seem odd to some that I would care about a bill that appears to deal with strictly religious matters. However, debate over this legislation revolves around the question of what it means to be Jewish, a question that isn’t necessarily about religion. Understanding American objections to the legislation first requires understanding a largely secular American Jewish character that emphasizes Jewish pluralism.
There’s an episode of the television series “Entourage” in which Ari, the Jewish agent, is scolded by his wife for ducking out of High Holiday services to make a business call. It’s the most important Jewish holiday, she tells him, and he’s setting a bad example for their children. While there are many who would likely agree with Ari’s wife, I actually disagree. In this country, there’s nothing more Jewish than absentmindedly attending High Holiday services while continuing to fret about the rest of your busy life.
The “Entourage” scenario serves as an example of a larger phenomenon. American Jews form strong communities that appear to revolve around more than religion. According to the 2008 Pew Forum U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, on average, American Jews are less likely than American Christians to believe in God or attend services, but we join and participate in congregations at similar rates.
The idea of a Jewish community united by non-religious values can be perplexing. Jews can (and will) debate what it means to be Jewish for an eternity. Religion aside, there are many cultural traits that take on a distinctly Jewish-American character. We are committed to Tikkun Olam, the healing of the world, but at the same time possess an overarching sense of sarcasm reminiscent of Woody Allen or Jerry Seinfeld. And of course, as Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz states, our Jewish identities are “energized” by anti-Semitism and a history of religious persecution.
Because our community seems to be united by much more than religion, religious pluralism within American Judaism is generally accepted, often even celebrated. There certainly are very religious Jews who look down on those who don’t practice and see rituals as central to the Jewish identity. But an Orthodox friend of mine recently expressed the opposite opinion: “It doesn’t bother me when Jews aren’t religious. What bothers me is when Jews who don’t practice don’t call themselves Jewish.”
This sentiment that Jewish pluralism is a positive force is not completely absent from Israel, where, according to the Israel Democracy Institute, roughly 51 percent of the population is “secular.” The difference is that Israel has a prominent Orthodox leadership that sees other forms of Judaism as illegitimate, whereas secular Judaism is viewed as increasingly mainstream in the United States.
Which brings me back to the conversion bill. The politics surrounding the bill are messy, but the focal point for critcism is that the bill gives Israel’s Orthodox Rabbis more authority to determine who is Jewish by state definition. While it’s unclear what the exact practical effects of the legislation might be, it has the potential to affect whether Jewish converts are allowed to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. Regardless, if the bill is passed, it will give more legitimacy to a leadership that believes un-Orthodox Jews in the U.S. are not really Jewish.
There are a few outcomes that I and other American Jews can hope for regarding this bill. One is that it’s never passed. Another possibility is that the most controversial provisions will be watered down or removed during the recess. But if the bill does get passed in its current form, it will be a blow to Jewish pluralism and, ultimately, to Jewish unity.
Jeremy Levy is an LSA junior.